In the Elf-help book "Keep Life Simple Therapy" Linus Mundy tells us "Know your limits – there's nothing more freeing than knowing what you can and cannot do well".
Does this mean that we shouldn't strive to improve? On the contrary, we absolutely should, how else are we to find our limits? Certainly not by simply sitting back and assuming that where we are now is as far as we can go. But it does mean that we have to accept that we are not designed to be brilliant at all things. We may have the wrong body structure, the wrong brain patterns, or the wrong personality type to do or be certain things. Or now might not be the right time. We can seek to change all of those things, but there is a limit to the degree to which we can.
I was never going to be an elite swimmer or a pop star – my body isn't built for either, and I'm not "driven" enough or ambitious enough to even attempt the work necessary to come close. That's not especially relevant to me, because I never wanted to be either of those things. I am never going to climb Mount Everest for similar reasons, which is more relevant because there was a time when I would (might!) have wanted to.
Knowing our limits is important though. We need to know when we have reached the end of our tether, so we can stop. Stop driving ourselves into the ground by working harder and harder for no more gain. We need – for both our physical and mental well-being – to know when to say "enough!". We need to stop before we hit the crash barrier.
There is also a more positive side to knowing your limits. Knowing you're never going to be a star at something gives you permission to do it for its own sake…to be completely utterly embarrassingly rubbish at it…and enjoy it all the same…to do something for fun, rather than because it has an achievement target pinned on its back. Run for the joy of running, not to lose weight or win a marathon. Swim for the feel of water on your skin and the play of light on the waves. Do "colouring in" because you'll never exhibit at the local gallery, can't draw to save your life, but a pretty picture is still a pretty picture…which is why I started pencil-shading R.W. Alley's sketches in my Elf book years before 'mindful colouring' was an adult craze. To me it's a childhood indulgence that I just didn't let go of.
Was it G.K. Chesterton who said "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly"? I heartily subscribe to this view, not because it's not worth putting the effort into things that you can actually be very good at with practice and learning and effort, but for those things where "badly" is the best you will ever achieve and that's ok. Part of my self-healing poem reads "nothing to prove, and nothing to lose, so nothing left to fear". That's how I feel when my favourite rock tunes start to be blasted out and I stomp out onto a dance floor.
I can't dance. I don't care. I like to dance (or at least leap about on a dancefloor). So I do.
Things that I know my limits on include work, cooking, singing, (yes) dancing, drawing, athletics, project management and team leadership, academic study, passing exams, swimming. Some of those bars are reasonably high, some of them pitifully low. C'est la vie. Things that I can and will explore further because I know I have not yet reached the boundary of my capability include walking, writing, poetry, travelling, exploring, gardening, home-making, photography, community engagement, political activism, aspects of creative endeavour I've not even considered yet. This doesn't mean that I'm about to stop doing all the other stuff (some of it maybe, not all) – it just means that I can do those things all the more easily for not needing to push myself to try to be better at them. Where I have not yet found the edge, I still want to feel for it, to see how far I can go while there's still pleasure in the learning and the improving.
Maybe by saying that, I am already pre-defining my limit: it's the point at which it stops being fun and starts to be a chore.
Maybe that always was my limit: for everything – and I just got lucky in that for me learning and achieving takes a long time to become a chore.
But the thing is: whatever we hang the weight of achievement on, whatever we insist on pushing ourselves to do beyond the point at which the pushing is its own reward, ceases to be worth doing well or badly. That's the point at which it starts to undermine us rather than support us. That's the limit, and we need to see it coming so that we can adjust the speed or the trajectory, or whatever it takes to ensure we avoid hitting it.
I would also say we should seek out things that we can do badly – just for the hell of it. Play chess with someone you know will wipe you off the board. Go on a bike ride, with a half-way-escape-route just in case. Hold the coffee morning but buy the cakes. Paint a wall because doing the whole room is too much and it'll all get done eventually (or not – you can always move). Be a tourist if you're not an explorer, sing in the shower, dance in the living room, write rubbish stories no-one need read…something, anything, just for fun.
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